Sync and async remote learning

cog-wheels-2125180_640I have seen a number of posts on twitter pitting Synchronous and Asynchronous remote learning approaches against each other.   Sadly, this kind of binary viewpoint is all too common, if not specifically catered for and encouraged on social media platforms.    As I have often said, sadly the world is not that simple.   So, I thought I would add some of my views:


If we take the SAMR model and the first element of it, substitution, using live video as a substitute for the classroom experience seems to make sense where the classroom experience is not an option.    At a basic level it looks like a simple swap.   Through live video students continue to get access to some of the visual ques present in face to face communication.   They also have the opportunity to engage in the more social side of learning with quick feedback and two-way communications allowing discussion points or ideas to be explored and clarification to be sought where confusion arises.   I believe the social benefits of video-based communication in particular are very important as learning is very much a social activity so the more similar we can make it to “normal” social interaction the better.

The challenge with the above being access to high speed internet to support video plus issues around latency of sound and video which cause problems as soon as multiple people try to talk or where people try to interject with their thoughts or comments.  These issues don’t exist in real time face to face situations in a classroom, or at least they don’t where good classroom management exists.

Another synchronous option might instead be the use of real time discussion or chat solutions.  This doesn’t have the same issue in relation to a need for bandwidth or in relation to video/audio latency.  That said, I believe that typed comments, thoughts, ideas and questions are simply a proxy for spoken offerings, and as a proxy lose some of the detail which exists with face to face real time communications either in real life or via video.  As a result, you can expect higher rates of miscommunication and misunderstanding.

Probably the biggest concern with a synchronous approach is that of workload, stress and strain.   Delivering either real time video or chat isn’t normal when compared with how lessons are generally taught.    This means teaching this way represents a cognitive load in terms of using the technology tools, considering pedagogical approaches and adjusting these, and managing to get feedback from students as an activity or lesson progresses;   Never underestimate the feedback a classroom of students provides through comments, body language, the groups attitude, etc, all of which are more difficult to gather remotely via a screen.  This departure from the current established norm therefore represents an additional load on teachers.


This focusses more on providing content with students able to work on it in their own time.   From a teachers point of view this is likely to be less stressful as they can plan and develop the required content, including repurposing already produced resources for sharing content.   As it doesn’t put the students directly in front of the students the cognitive load isn’t as significant, as teachers have time to think before responding to students or before posting the next activity.

The challenge here however is that in asynchronous learning the social aspect is lacking.   There isn’t the same interaction between students and teacher or between students and their peers that there is with synchronous or real time activities.    There is also a greater reliance on intrinsic motivation as it requires the students to complete activities in their own time without the teacher prompting in real time.

Sync vs async?

We would never suggest that learning in a classroom, in real time and face to face, was either synchronous or asynchronous.   The teacher might lead a class through some content or a discussion in a synchronous fashion then later in the lesson provide students learning activities to work through in a more asynchronous fashion.   The teacher may then review learning with students back in a more synchronous style.     We would never suggest the teacher just provide resources for students to work through in classroom lessons, or that the teacher and students spend their lessons all working together.

So why is this even being discussed in relation to remote learning?    It doesn’t make any sense to me!

Learning is a complex process best nurtured by experienced educators who know which tools to use and when, who know when they need to work in synchronicity with students or when to empower students to work on their own or in groups in a more asynchronous approach.    It isn’t a question of synchronous versus asynchronous learning.   Its, as is often the case, about finding the right balance between the two extremes, the balance which suits the teacher, the students and learning which is taking place.


Author: garyhenderson2014

Gary Henderson is currently the Director of IT in an Independent school in the UK. Prior to this he worked as the Head of Learning Technologies working with public and private schools across the Middle East. This includes leading the planning and development of IT within a number of new schools opening in the UAE. As a trained teacher with over 15 years working in education his experience includes UK state secondary schools, further education and higher education, as well as experience of various international schools teaching various curricula. This has led him to present at a number of educational conferences in the UK and Middle East.

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